Creating playful spaces for collaborative development of online teaching capacity

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Naomi Holford Kate Breeze


Transition to online learning presents technological and emotional challenges. Lack of attention to staff-student relationships, coupled with limitations in technology can be demotivating. Losing face-to-face contact has left academic staff with the hard work of reinventing themselves, finding new ways to assert their presence and humanity in what can be experienced as soulless and sometimes soul-destroying online environments.  Professional development in online teaching can be reduced to top-down skills training in using specific tools.  In this paper we argue for a more playful, collaborative approach to professional development, creating spaces for exploration, risk-taking, enjoyment and participation.

Ongoing changes in technologies and a shift to almost entirely online learning in the Open University has required us to work differently with students. Most OU tuition is done by associate lecturers, on fractional contracts when this project was carried out, who work closely with students but rarely create curriculum, assessment or strategy. This reflects a wider trend within the HE sector towards casualised, precarious labour, with those closest to students often lacking power.

This paper reflects on a scholarship project focused on the lived experience of four associate lecturers, negotiating the transition from blended to entirely online tuition, working with two full-time academic staff. Participants differed in experience and enthusiasm for online learning; some keen 'early adopters', others closer to the 'reluctant majority'. Using action learning sets, online spaces and pedagogical practices were explored through shared self-reflections. Building strong relationships between colleagues created space where they could safely experiment. We argue that such 'playful learning' (Nørgård et al., 2017) is key for professional development. It can address reluctance to embrace new technologies and empower participants to reclaim their professional identity and expertise. Participants shifted from considering online learning as an obstacle, to seeing new opportunities to create democratic, inclusive, and collaborative learning spaces.

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